While the stars may be the eventual destination of much science fiction, the first goal of two of the fathers of science fiction was closer and eminently more practical: the Moon. In their imaginations, both Jules Verne and H G Wells went there in De la Terre à la Lune and The First Men in the Moon, published in 1865 and 1901 respectively, classic works that have both been revisited in the past years, one in a new adaptation, the other in a revision of a historic work regarded as the first ever science fiction film.
It took reality until 1969 for reality to catch up with those fictional lunar excursions, and it was in the celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Moon landings that the BBC’s 2010 adaptation of H G Wells’ novel was commissioned, and now we have another reason to celebrate, with the release of the restored version of Le Voyage Dans la Lune, Georges Méliès’ ground breaking 1902 short film inspired by Jules Verne’s novel, with a new soundtrack supplied by the appropriately otherworldly French electronic music duo Air.
H G Wells’ The First Men in the Moon
The Wells novel was adapted by Mark Gatiss, a man well versed in genre work from his involvement with The League of Gentleman, the four episodes of Doctor Who he has written, two appearance on that show, the live 2005 performance of The Quatermass Experiment and the excellent documentary series he hosted, A History of Horror. Here he is suitably eccentric as “scientific investigator” Arthur Cavor, creator of the compound Cavorite, a material that is opaque to gravity.
His travelling companion is Rory Kinnear as aspiring playwright and failed businessman Julius Bedford, well cast in the role by simple virtue of being an English gentleman, and together they build a capsule immune to the that fundamental force of nature that will allow them to navigate to the Moon by manipulating roller blinds coated in Cavorite that seize the gravity of celestial bodies towards which they will be drawn.
The production is luxurious for the limited budget, thanks to careful preproduction planning and the largely faithful recreation of the structure of the novel, which calls for little more than barren landscapes and the capsule itself, a modest contraption of Edwardian styling. A backdrop was used to create the exterior Moonscapes, a more economical method than computer rendering, though that process was used to create the inhabitants of the Moon, the Selenites, and it is here the limitations of digitally created characters become apparent.
Unfortunately, that strict adherence to source is also the downfall of the piece, in that the novel is more thoughtful than dramatic, the narrative coming from exploration and discovery rather than postulation, an acceptable structure for a book, but the antithesis of televised drama. A framing story tying Bedford to the 1969 Moon landing is added, as is Cavor’s specific fate on the Moon, though it remains faithful to Wells’ established framework, but as the body of the story is simple and linear, while the wonder of the initial launch into space is charming, it is insufficient to last the voyage.
An interesting interlude is that which represents the chapter “Mr. Bedford in Infinite Space,” where the capsule returns to Earth, its sole passenger suffering nightmares in the style of Georges Méliès, featuring Gatiss’ League of Gentleman costars Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton as celestial bodies, and it is to the original we now turn our attentions, if only to distract ourselves from Kinnear’s hideously fake beard.
Le Voyage Dans la Lune
Long thought only to exist in black and white until a single print of the hand tinted version was discovered in 1993, this key historical work has been lovingly restored over more than a decade, and the new version was premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Nominally an adaptation of Verne, the film has aspects of the Wells story within it, but in truth, the original film is so fragmentary, with the idea of narrative being present only in the loosest sense, and it is a testament to the Georges Méliès that it has endured and still commands respect which belies the fact that it is over a century old.
There is an astonishing realisation while watching that every single person involved in the creation is a pioneer long dead and turned to dust. Even restored, the original technical and artistic limitations cannot be overcome, and as one of the first motion pictures ever made, the camerawork, editing and artistry were nascent, but the influence is seen in the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight, HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon and Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret as well as in the recent Wells adaptation.
It is upon arrival on the Moon that the narrative draws from Wells with the presence of inhabitants, but while both sets of explorers find the natives of the Moon to be similarly fragile, the French have no qualms about extinguishing them, and are happy to display the specimen they bring home with them as though it were a trophy, a primitive animal in a zoo, even a slave. At least Cavor expressed outrage at Bedford’s actions, and sadness when circumstance forced him to act to save the people of Earth.
The new soundtrack by Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, is less ethereal than would be expected from the band who created the submlime ambience of The Virgin Suicides, though a more abstract piece might have been lost beneath the stylised action and erratic motion of the film, an artefact of the 16 frames per second standard for projection of the time. The feel is not typical of Air; if anything, the opening moments recall Portishead’s second album, the bass is, perhaps intentionally, Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, and the sonic distortion reminds of Radiohead.
The science of Verne is more biased towards engineering possibility, and is depicted, perhaps unfairly, as more primitive than that of Wells’ fantastical invention, which at least displayed an internal logic, whereas Verne’s projectile, as depicted by Méliès, is nothing more than a cannon, with no propulsion or guidance, and the return journey is achieved by tipping the capsule off the edge of the Moon. Wells was more sophisticated; even before the phrase Grand Unified Theory had been conceived, in finding a way in which gravity could be manipulated in the same way as the electromagnetic spectrum, Cavor had indeed crossed the frontier of physics which defies theoreticians a century later.
As both these stories represent a time of optimism, when science fiction indicated that all that was required to undertake a bold voyage into the unknown was to conceive an audacious plan, believe in it sufficiently and work hard until the gaps in the science would fill themselves in, they take the viewer, even for a moment, out of the jaded cynicism that defines our modernity.
Accustomed as we are to seeing science fiction through American eyes, it is comforting to be reminded that Europe was the home of invention that drove most of those early stories, from Verne and Wells through to Wyndham, Clarke and Aldiss. Hollywood may be where the major films are made, but the heart of these stories still lives in the countries they were born in.
A Moon capsule built in an English country home? Marvellous.
H G Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and Air’s Le Voyage Dans la Lune are both now available on DVD and CD respectively